Just before our trip to New Mexico, I picked up an old issue of the Atlantic Monthly (Oct 05) to read on the plane. I don’t remember how the magazine landed in my hands, but I noticed a cover story on a (then new) book: Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
I am captivated by the man, Lincoln. Perhaps it’s because I was born in Illinois, Land of Lincoln — and spent 6 years living near Lincoln’s New Salem in central Illinois — and am stirred each and every time I read his second inaugural address. The article occupied me for hours of air-time, and when I got home, I got the book from the library.
Shenk chronicles Lincoln’s life by following the thread of his well-known struggles with depression. His melancholy factored through his political career in a most interesting way, as a kind of underground current. Facing depression, or “nerves” as it was called, is largely responsible for giving Lincoln the character that made him a great leader, able to help the country endure what it had to during the Civil War.
It is also fascinating to read the reasons that his mood difficulties were eventually erased from his legacy. I think it’s safe to say that Lincoln would never have risen to prominence today. Not only was he not photogenic, his history of mental distress would have ousted him from contention. As a society, we no longer have a concept that melancholy has its function. Instead we have two paradoxical reactions: We are quick to medicate minor depression. We are quick to stigmatize those who suffer major depression.
I’m a writer, and writers rub elbows with depression, it’s inevitable.
If you have any interest in Lincoln, or in the subject of mood disorders, you’ll find this book well worth your time. I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject! Perhaps you read it years ago when it first came out.